The impending catastrophe staring at Shimla, queen of the hills, since the past two decades recently became harsh reality. It can be attributed to the accumulation of various ingredients including ill-planned and illegal construction, mushrooming growth of hotels and homestays, illicit felling of trees, indiscriminate cutting of hills etc.
Shimlaites have only themselves to blame for making the city an abode of slums; a trail of destruction could be witnessed owing to landslides at every nook and corner of the city.
Shimla (lovingly known as ‘Chhota Vilayat ‘or ‘Little England’) got its municipality in India during the British period and dates back to 1851, preceded by formation of a municipal corporation in Madras (Chennai) in 1688 and later followed by MC corporations in Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata) by 1762. Unfortunately, it miserably failed to preserve its sanctity and grandeurs as municipal laws were violated with impunity. Shimla corporation has got its present state of affairs which has been responsible for destruction and tragedy thereby shaking the confidence of the citizens of this city.
Geologists opine that it was connivance of the residents with corrupt officials of successive governments as well as the Shimla Municipal Corporation which could be the predominant factor in the loss of lives and property. A report by National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has highlighted the serious fallout of population burden on cities including Shimla which has been compounded due to poor urban planning and disregard to the existing norms.
Dwelling upon the dimension of the disaster in the capital, chief minister, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu candidly described the calamity as ‘man-made’. He said, “It is a human error leading to a tragedy which warranted preventive and precautionary measures to avert the same, but we proved a big failure. With such utter disregard shown to nature it was bound to retaliate. Unprecedented floods, scary landslides, vanishing buildings, houses, huts, hotels etc. are nature’s retribution to mankind.”
Amidst the belief that nature’s fury has calmed down after hitting the entire state, Shimlaites woke up on the morning of August 16 to the Shiva temple tragedy claiming over two dozen lives. A massive landslide triggered by heavy rains originated from a small hilltop adjacent to the historical building of Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) which is luckily safe. It is an irony of circumstances that owing to the auspicious day of the holy month of Shravan, devotees had started pouring in to the temple since morning.
Raja Bhasin, author who has witnessed decline of Shimla from close quarters, and Tikender Panwar, former deputy mayor of the Shimla municipal corporation, said, “There are about 25 water springs and 100 ‘bavdees’ in Shimla city which have been sacrificed by some over ambitious citizens who have constructed the buildings over them, thereby sitting on the constant danger of landslides which is exactly what has happened. There is a cascading effect of ill-planned buildings and there is dire need of creating new flat top with plantations which could replace old ones to bring the city into a safe zone.”
Literati, scholars and conscious citizens commend the judicious decision of the National Green Tribunal which had put a blanket ban on new construction of any kind — residential, institutional and commercial — in any part of the core and green/forest area falling within the Shimla planning area. But errant citizens have been constantly committing the blunders of breaking the municipal laws with impunity and created illegal structures even in ‘nullahs’ which have been engulfed by the landslides. NGT had nullified an attempt of the previous BJP government to implement Shimla Development Plan 2041 which was stayed on May 12, 2022. It had earlier appointed an expert committee in 2015 to study the impact of existing construction activities, ecology, water supply and sewage system of the city. The final report said that Shimla had exceeded its carrying capacity vis-à-vis disaster risk management perspective. The committee predicted that an extremely adverse environment has been created owing to unsafe and uncontrolled construction during the past several decades and it is bound to lead to unprecedented natural disasters like landslides in the city which is true to recent devastating nature’s fury in Shimla city.
Umesh Akre, former president of the Shimla Hotels and Restaurants Association, felt that proper Raft technology was not used by the residents who opted for quick and easy methodology of RCC which could not withstand the pressure of landslides and resulted in the current upheaval claiming lives and loss of properties.
Analysts opine that Shimla is poised to witness yet another monstrous catastrophe which will emanate from its existence in a high-risk seismic zone, hence the state government and citizens must work in tandem to avert the imminent disaster — otherwise it will be too late to survive.
The writer is a political analyst and senior journalist based in Shimla.